Seeking the Meaning of Life
The philosophical legacy of existentialism is grounded in the phenomenological approach. The phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, inspiring Heidegger, Sartre and others, provided the basic grounding to the subject-matter of existential thought about human existence.
What do we actually mean by this three-word formula?
It suggests that existence comes before essence. Essence is definition, purpose and function. For everything in the world created by human beings, essence precedes or comes prior to existence, but for humanity itself, the reverse is the case. A chair, for instance, was made way after its essence had been thought out in the mind of its maker.
The existentialists go on to assert that we, the human beings, live in angst. Also called Existentialist Angst, it is a feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one (not focused on and in relation to one particular thing) about the human condition or the state of the world in general. It refers to general dread or anxiety, arising especially from the lack of purpose, concern or meaning in the universe. It refers to fear or anxiety that descends upon you when you are overtaken by the emptiness of your life and the meaninglessness of the world that you are living in.
So born, or rather thrown, into a world surrounded by the nature so cold and apathetic, we are trapped in an extreme feeling of angst when we realize that there is no one to blame for our actions, for the consequences of our acts and choices, and that the blame lies on our own shoulders. No god or divine authority exists to guide our way; no messenger or saint to lead us or tell us as to what to do and how to act; no absolute rules or laws to regulate our life.
We have been eternally plunged in a world that is terribly silent and impersonal. No one listens to us or our woes. We are deafened by the deafening silence of nature. We seek meaning for life; but no absolute meaning is found anywhere; we look for and make gods and saints but the dread shaking our very internal peace doesn’t disappear or lessen. Instead, our problems multiply exponentially by our futile attempts at our raging search for a meaning in the supernatural, that is, gods, saints, beliefs, ideals, etc., and soon we realize that the objects that we clung to for our hope and comfort, have become an albatross around our necks in the form of what is called Security Blanket Paradox.
The core assumptions of Existentialism are as follows:
1. Existence is problematic. Our very existence is at stake for us.
2. There is no inherent or absolute meaning underlying human existence, hence, no meaningful life. All we can do is to create or recreate our own meaning.
3. Being human is finding oneself “thrown” into a world with no clear logical, ontological or moral structure. Logically as it goes, human experience is essentially one of those given to stress, anxiety, shallowness, hopelessness, orderliness and indeed metaphysical complexity.
Where does this anguish emanate from? Anxiety results from both existence and “threat of non-being.” We are devoured by the anxiety that prefigures the ultimate loss of being that is death and the ultimate contingency of being that is birth. Both the chance events and extreme situations of life make evident the threat of non-being.
4. We hide from death, from uncertainty, from ourselves, and from our Being-Itself. We try to run away or ignore or neglect our very being/our very reality/our very existence, but extreme situations make our hiding impossible.
5. “Man is condemned to be free!” Once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does,” meaning thereby that we are stuck with freedom whether we like it or not. Freedom is hard to handle, and most of the people run away from it. One of the ways to hide is to pretend that you aren’t really free. This very freedom becomes our nemesis. Since we realize that we exist in a terribly-free world as free agents, this realization creates anxiety and anguish. We flee in self-deception and continue leading inauthentic lives. We choose to live in what is called “Bad Faith”. Bad faith is hiding from reality. We try to conceal our reality from ourselves/we pose as ignorant/we disown our choices and freedom. We deceive ourselves by placing our burden of responsibility on the shoulders of others. Bad faith refers to self-deception.
“Bad faith occurs when someone tries to rationalize our existence or actions through religion, science or some other belief system, which imposes meaning or coherence on human existence. It allows us to escape responsibility for our moral choices by treating humanity as the passive object of larger, organized forces — human nature, the Will of God, emotional passions, social pressures, etc.”
In Bad Faith, we find ourselves living by labels or titles, and following rules and guidelines set by external entities. Anytime we make a choice that is based on some role we are playing or some label we are trying to live by, we are living in bad faith. Bad faith is living inauthentically.
6. The notable of the existentialist philosophers is Jean Paul Sartre. He systematized the existentialist thought. Sartre didn’t believe there was a god who could have designed us, so he rejected the idea that there was a god and he had purpose for us. The pen was made to write, and that was its essence, which was in the mind of the pen-maker before he made the same. But what was human being designed to do?
“Living authentically” means to live with the understanding of your responsibility to control your freedom despite the absurd. Any purpose or meaning in your life is created by you. If you choose to live by someone else’s rules, be that anywhere between religion and the wishes of your parents, then you are refusing to accept the absurd. Sartre named this refusal “bad faith”, as you are choosing to live by someone else’s definition of meaning and purpose – not your own.
The writer is an author and a faculty member at the Begum Nusrat Bhutto Women University, Sukkur.